5 Rules For Winning Over The C-Suite

How do you rank yourself among your C-suite colleagues? Make sure you’re speaking the same language when it comes to driving growth.

5 Rules For Winning Over The C-Suite
[Photo: Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg]

Today’s marketing leaders can recite the ABCs of social media: content marketing, revenue performance management, and branding. Yet when it comes to conversations with their peers, they often speak in another language.


As you assess your current relationship with your C-suite peers, how would honestly rate yourself? Do you feel like a fish out of water? Or are you rowing in the same direction?

When the Project Management Institute revealed in 2014 that 44% of strategic initiatives are unsuccessful, they discovered the main reason is a lack of organization alignment at around 58%. In other words, unsuccessful projects are not highly aligned to company’s strategic goals.

Today, if you are an executive responsible for driving growth, it’s tempting to be distracted by the 1,800-plus available marketing automation tools at the expense of strategic priorities. Marketing cloud discussions are taking tech budgets by storm. We succumb to these diversions at the expense of other leadership fundamentals–the ability to capture the hearts and minds of our stakeholders.


When we ignore the need to continually refine our persuasion abilities, we bypass the opportunity to make things happen swiftly, to optimize our customer interactions, and to seize new, unchartered growth opportunity.

Here are five strategies to help you increase agility, revenue contribution, and confidence:

1. Break Down Your Influencing Strategy Into Steps

Award-winning author and consultant Alan Weiss reminds us the purpose of communication is to generate interest. “Interest generates a meeting; meetings create trusting relationships, and relationships drive conceptual agreement business case,” he says.


Your business case needs to demonstrate how you will improve the condition of the business, not generate more Twitter followers. Ultimately, this persuasion framework and sequence builds trust with even the most skeptical peers.

2. Ask Why

The next time another department leader urgently requests adding a new initiative to your ever-growing priority list, ask them the following questions:

  • Why does it matter?
  • How does it align with your top four corporate goals?
  • How it will ultimately improve your customers’ condition?

If the proposed initiative is new and untested, ask them if they are willing to cosponsor and staff an innovation project.


3. Anticipate Tensions

Two years ago, Jordan Shultz, vice president of sales for software provider Dynamic Signal, recognized an urgent need to make a strategic pivot. He began noticing their initial customers wanted different capabilities–employee engagement became more of an imperative than customer engagement. A strategic pivot would require significant changes in Dynamic Signal’s business model.

“It all started with changes in behavior at Oakley Women’s Apparel,” Shultz says. “The number one person on the Oakley fan leaderboard was a store clerk in Cincinnati, not a customer.”

When Jordan initially presented the idea of shifting to an employee engagement model to his IT team, they resisted because the idea did not fit into their existing product road map. Their chief customer officer chose to resign over the matter.


After much debate, IT agreed to the pivot. Two years after the pivot, Dynamic Signal raised $37 million from the venture capital community, and earned a significant number of Fortune 100 customers. The pivot, while initially painful, paid long-term dividends.

4. Lower Expectations And Embrace Ambiguity

It isn’t always possible to present an ironclad return on investment model for every initiative, especially those involving nascent digital components. The growth in the use of virtual private networks allows your employees, prospects, and customers to share unfiltered comments about you, and precludes you from measuring page views and unstructured data.

Sites such as Glassdoor have become go-to resources for job seekers. Your finest automation tools cannot track these threads. In addition, you’ll often lack the time to conduct extensive surveys and live customer observation before an exciting growth opportunity presents itself.


Metrics can also work against your cause. One of my friends, an accomplished business columnist, tracks the open rates from his popular posts. He recently told me it takes 2,000 people to click on a book order link to generate one book order. If you have 100,000 newsletter subscribers and a respectable 20% open rate, then 20,000 people may be reading your content. If 5% of the 20,000 actually click on your call to action, that further reduces impact. This might dampen the promises you make regarding the ways a new initiative will drive pipeline growth.

5. Build Your Critical Thinking Muscles

You go to the gym to strengthen your muscles. Your brain is a muscle, too, and needs regular exercise. During strategic planning and budgeting conversations, your C-suite peers are asking the following:

  • Can this person separate strategy from tactics–or the what from the how?
  • Do they maintain a global perspective?
  • Can they spot patterns and trends in disparate places?
  • Are they capable of painting credible pictures of possibilities and likelihoods?
  • Are they seen as a source of advice and wisdom to others?

Speak The Same Language

Marketing leaders who have secured long-term seats in the C-suite inspire me. Chip Coyle, CMO of software solutions company Infor, chose a hands-off strategy, while CEO Charles Phillips chose to build content for his own blog.


During a recent panel discussion at the Social Shakeup Conference in Atlanta this past June, Coyle told the audience: “I make sure our marketing communications team does not interfere with what Charles wants to say.”

Earlier this year, when the state of Indiana and Arkansas introduced controversial legislation on religious freedom measures, Phillips stepped in and took a position. Coyle firmly believes that fostering an autonomous approach to Infor’s content strategy has greatly contributed to the executive team’s support for marketing’s new initiatives.

Val Wright, president of Val Wright Consulting in Los Angeles, shared an example of how she and her colleagues worked together toward a common goal. She attributes much of that success to an open relationship between Amazon’s CFO Kevin Gasper and CMO Jenny Perry.


“Our leadership team knew in order to educate and inspire customers to buy fashion on, we had to invest heavily in marketing, which was an alien concept at Amazon,” Wright says she learned while she was at Amazon as a fashion director of HR.

Wright knew that this launch would not be an easy task. At the time, upscale fashion was not in Amazon’s wheelhouse. They were known for selling inexpensive, low-quality clothing necessities.

Wright participated in the early executive team discussions to formulate the new growth strategy. “In meetings it was perfectly acceptable to challenge existing models, marketing plans, and approaches,” she says. “‘Debate and decide’ is one of the famous core values at Amazon. Gasper and Perry worked in tandem to identify the investment and metrics for success, so when we all sat in our annual strategy review session with Jeff Bezos, we were aligned, clear on the details and data, along with the positive impact on the customer experience.”


While dining in an upscale restaurant, it can be fun to impress friends by ordering a fine wine in a foreign tongue. But when it comes to crucial executive-level discussions, stick to the same language as your tablemates.